Topic: Government & Politics

Good Riddance to the Ethics Truce
(6/16/2004)

The Ethics Scoreboard has already deplored the cynical lack of ethics enforcement in the U.S. Congress. (See Congress Ethics Free Zone and Ethics Truce? ) There has been a seven year "ethics truce" (now there's a fascinating concept for you) in which a tacit agreement between the parties prevented substantive ethics charges from being brought against members. The supposed purpose of this "truce" was to prevent an endless cycle of politically motivated ethics inquiries. The effect of it, and a not entirely unintended effect, has been to give unethical members the green light for clear violations of House ethics rules, and more important, institutionalized unethical conduct.

Finally, someone has had enough. Rep. Chris Bell (D-Tex.) is sending to the House ethics committee a complaint charging House Majority Leader Tom DeLay with soliciting campaign contributions in return for legislative favors; laundering illegal campaign contributions through a Texas political action committee; and improperly involving a federal agency in the Case of the Fugitive Texas Democrats during last year's redistricting battles.

It would be inappropriate to speculate whether DeLay is guilty of some or all of these offenses, although the second highest ranking Texas Republican is a virtuoso at pushing the ethical envelope. He is not alone in this, however, and if a full-fledged "ethics war" breaks out (there's another fascinating concept), it can hardly avoid shining light on some pretty murky activities, and some awfully dark souls as well.

From a philosophical point of view, it is troubling that the resumption of ethical oversight in the U.S. Congress is likely to be motivated by that most unethical of impulses, revenge. It is going to be a classic example of people doing the right thing for the wrong reasons. But in the long-standing ethics-free zone that is the House of Representatives, that is clearly as good as we can hope for. There will be an exchange of politically motivated ethics charges and counter-charges, but real miscreants will be caught in the cross-fire. With any luck, and some forceful reporting by the media, the public will realize what kind of sleazy activity reigns during an "ethics truce," and adopt the alternative method of reducing the length and intensity of "ethics wars." The method? Elect ethical representatives.

For the record, these are the particulars in the 18 page complaint against DeLay, according to the Washington Post:

Westar: Officers of Kansas-based Westar Energy wrote memos in 2002 citing their belief that $56,500 in campaign contributions to political committees associated with DeLay and other Republicans would get them "a seat at the table" where key legislation was being drafted. Bell's complaint says DeLay "illegally solicited and accepted political contributions in return for official action," but DeLay has said he did no such thing.

TRMPAC: Bell repeats earlier claims that the Texans for a Republican Majority Political Action Committee, created by DeLay, laundered $190,000 in corporate donations through the Republican National Committee, which sent $190,000 to Texas GOP candidates. State law bars such candidates from using corporate donations. DeLay and other Republicans deny the charges.

Federal Aviation Administration: Bell's complaint says DeLay "improperly used his office" when it asked the FAA to help locate a private plane last year. The plane was thought to be carrying Texas Democratic legislators who were preventing a quorum that Republicans needed in Austin to pass their contentious redistricting plan. DeLay has denied any wrongdoing.

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